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Ben Wheatley Roundtable: Free Fire‘s All American Action

Ben Wheatley is known for his hard hitting films like Kill List and High-Rise. Even his comedy Sightseers is full of macabre violence. So when Ben Wheatley does an action movie, you should know what to expect. Free Fire is more than just a shootout.

Wheatley, who cowrote Free Fire with his wife and partner Amy Jump, sets gangs of arms dealers and buyers loose in a Boston warehouse when a deal goes bad. Find out who remains standing when Free Fire opens Friday.

Q: Did anything surprise you about the action genre when you actually made Free Fire?

Ben Wheatley: There was stuff that became apparent. We were talking about this earlier on. It was Jarmusch saying it, but I don’t know if it was in someone else’s movie. There was this riff that he has about why in cowboy movies do they fire the guns, and when they’re empty they throw them on the ground? Seeing as a gun is an expensive bit of equipment, why would you do that? I would always laugh about it. Yeah, he’s so right. Why do people do that? Then we found out in the making of this film, if you’ve got a story point that the gun has got no more bullets in it, how do you tell that story? Looking at it, talking to it, or checking it and all this crap. When they were making those original movies, they worked it out that you have to do that and then the audience knows exactly what it was. We were coming up against that when we were trying to look at how these films are put together and try to make it in a new way. Weirdly, you feel the pressure of the old history of Hollywood filmmaking coming on. You go, “Oh God, that’s why. All right, okay.”

Q: What fun surprises did you get out of the actors’ improv?

Ben Wheatley: It’s more asides and kind of another level of detail of the eye lines and the kind of reactions. Some stuff would be scripted reactions backwards and forwards, and then suddenly it would run on and there would be extra bits of dialogue there. That’s kind of the main thing. Improvisation is a tricky one because true improvisation, like actors just being let off the hook to talk and make sh*t up runs out of steam real quick. It can be really good in the room but when you get into the edit, there’s nothing you can do with it. Unless the style of your movie is some kind of endless circular chat about random stuff, in the same way that normal conversations sound pretty bad. Hopefully you’ll edit what I say and get rid of all the rambling nonsense I say and make it more succinct and make it sound more intelligent. Whenever people say their films are improvised, it means lots of different things. It covers a multitude of things from improvisational workshopping which is then written and scripted, like Mike Leigh stuff. Or, things that were supposedly improvised but actually weren’t. I think a lot of the Cassavetes stuff, from what I’ve read from the Bogdanovich interviews, I always thought they were wild improvisational pieces but they were heavily scripted mostly.

Q: When your actors hit everything right, does that make editing easier?

Ben Wheatley: Yeah. It would do. If everything goes right, then it’s easier to edit. It depends. There’s different ways of shooting. I’ve seen people get hung up on the perfect take which is you just go again and again and again and again trying to get this take where every aspect of it works. Because I’ve come from an editing background, I’m more of a harvester. I’m looking at it and go, “Well, that bit’s great. That’s all right. This bit’s great.” Eventually, the whole thing is going to be great because it’s going to be cut off. It doesn’t matter. In a way, you’ve got to be really careful not to punish the actors by making them go again and again and again because it doesn’t actually get better, unless you’re Kubrick and you’re doing like 100 takes. I’ve done this on ads. I’ve done 80 takes before and it’s sort of a bell curve, down to the bottom and take 80 goes [creaking up a tad more]. You need to be shooting for about six months to be able to shoot like that. All you end up with is that glassy eyed look. They don’t know what they’re saying anymore but it’s just a noise that comes out of their face.

Q: Was it important to hobble all the characters right at the beginning of Free Fire?

Ben Wheatley: Yeah, I wanted to reduce it down to a personal level as much as possible. In a world where you’ve got action movies which can do anything, you can blow up anything, what is happening graphically? What’s the reality of them in terms of your viewing experience? And does it matter? Does it matter if something massive gets blown up or something tiny gets blown up? It’s all about the experience of reading through the characters and that intensity. It was an exercise in reducing all that down. I like the crawling because the crawling for me is the car chases. That was one of the original thoughts. What is a car chase? A car chase is a steering wheel shot, a shot of a wheel squealing and a hubcap coming off and a tramp pushing a shopping trolly full of cans that gets hit in the air. There’s only about five shots in a car chase. They’re all the same. But then what if you take those shots and turn them into a guy going, “Oh god, oh god” and then another person going “ughhhh.” That’s your car chase but it’s just brought down.

Q: Since Free Fire is your first film set in the States, does this represent your view of America?

Ben Wheatley: I think for this film, it was interesting. I was thinking about this idea of people coming to America. It’s not about American characters and just their interaction with each other. Like you say, there is a European aspect to the Irish and also the African as well. I think that’s my experience to a degree. Obviously not in the world of gun running but my coming here and that negotiation of trying to understand the culture, separated by the same language, speaking English but then having to re-understand it from the American culture which can’t be underestimated. The weird world of the UK’s here and the radiation of culture comes to us, but do we understand it fully in the same way when it happens here? It’s kind of a halfway house almost, this movie, for me. It’s a moving of my mind to here to a degree but still through the filter of people who are coming here for the first time.

Q: Was Boston chosen for the IRA angle?

Ben Wheatley: Yeah, that was stuff that was happening. It was based around real stuff. The guns were being run out. One story I was reading was about guns being run out of New York, being put on the QE2. The QE2 would go back to Belfast. They’d unload the guns off the QE2 into Belfast which just blew my mind. We’re very careful about not mentioning Boston in the film. Massachusetts is mentioned.

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